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A chance to revive Main Street

NIAGARA FALLS – Richard A. Hastings once talked about creating a 1900s-themed general store in the vacant former Jenss building on Main Street.

Hastings also spoke at one point of establishing a barbecue restaurant on the former department store site.

A year and a half ago, a long-shot deal to locate the National Comedy Hall of Fame in the four-story building quietly fizzled out.

Hastings, a Town of Porter resident who has been amassing property on and around Main Street in Niagara Falls since the mid-1980s, is looking to sell 37 properties as a bundle.

The asking price: $5 million.

While some people might balk at the price, others see opportunities.

With construction continuing on the new train station in the North End and plans moving forward for the removal of part of the nearby Robert Moses Parkway, some believe that the “for sale” signs come at a time when the Main Street area has a stronger chance of seeing significant redevelopment.

“Even one block at a time would be really cool to see,” said Craig E. Avery, a developer who is renovating properties on Third Street.

Decades removed from being a bustling part of the city, Main Street, like the rest of the Falls, has fallen on hard times.

Onlookers see improvement, including restoration of what has become the Rapids Theatre, a regional entertainment venue. The city also built a new courthouse and police station on Main, though spinoff redevelopment surrounding it has not taken place as many had hoped.

“We’re very interested to see something happen along Main Street and between Main Street and Whirlpool Street,” said Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

Hastings had been said to be considering selling all his properties earlier during Dyster’s administration, the mayor said, but this time might be viewed in a substantially different way by the market because of the other projects in the area.

“It would seem to us as though, having held the properties for a long time and not putting forward proposals for their redevelopment in some time,” Dyster said, “that maybe this is a new opportunity either for Mr. Hastings himself to move toward the redevelopment of these properties or, if that’s not his business strategy, for him to sell them to someone who might be willing to move.”

The properties have already been on the market for more than a year, said Alan T. Hastings, of Hastings + Cohn Real Estate, the firm marketing the properties. Alan T. Hastings is not related to Richard Hastings, who has a son Alan J. Hastings.

The list of what’s for sale includes 13 vacant buildings, nine vacant lots, seven parking lots and eight buildings at least partly occupied.

“Some of his buildings, like the Jenss building, they need a lot of work,” Alan T. Hastings said. “It’s just a matter of somebody determining just how much work has to be done there.”

Preferring to sell as package

There has been some interest in individual properties, the broker said, and though the owner’s preference is to sell the properties as a package, he is open to offers on individual properties.

“It’s just a great opportunity for somebody to come along and purchase a large number of properties right in the heart of downtown Niagara Falls and perhaps change the whole momentum in that area,” Alan T. Hastings said.

So why is Richard Hastings, 74, a former civil engineer who also worked for a consortium of American oil companies in Saudi Arabia, looking to sell?

He’s moving toward retirement “if that ever comes,” his broker said.

Hastings has been known to do the property maintenance at his buildings himself, from cutting the grass to sweeping the sidewalks.

Jeffrey Scott Morrow, owner of the Book Corner bookstore on Main, called Hastings a hard worker.

“This guy took a chance when no one else would take a chance,” Morrow said. “In my mind, he helped us because at least he looked after the properties.”

According to online records from the City Assessor’s Office, Hastings has acquired the parcels through various companies at a cost of a little more than $1 million. In total, they are currently assessed at about $950,000.

One of the properties listed among the 38 for sale by Hastings was sold in November, according to city records.

The $5 million sale price was set by Richard Hastings and was thought to be a “good starting point,” said Alan T. Hastings, “to test the market.”

So far, there has been a good deal of interest in individual buildings, he said.

It will be interesting to see how the nearby projects, including the train station, its attached Underground Railroad Interpretive Center and the planned parkway work, both affect and are affected by any sale of Hastings property, said Kory M. Schuler, director of government affairs for the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses across Niagara County.

“It would be great to see a local developer step in” rather than a speculator from out of state, Schuler said.

Dyster said the city has previously encouraged Hastings, who also owns property in Lewiston and Lockport, to work with it on some type of redevelopment project.

Mayor hopes to force issue

“We haven’t had a lot of active discussion in some time,” Dyster said.

The time is right, he added, for the city to force the issue about redevelopment on Main Street.

Administration officials are currently considering what role, if any, the city’s Urban Renewal Agency might be able to play in that potential redevelopment.

The agency, which can put out requests for development for particular parcels or city blocks or areas of the city, also has the ability to acquire land. It also has the potential to use its own funding to pursue projects. Whether that would happen is “an open question,” Dyster said.

“We think it’s a good time for us to take some steps on Main Street,” the mayor said. “We don’t want to waste the opportunity.”

Hastings said what he had once seen in the Falls was “a huge opportunity. I just hope someone else can see what I saw.”